Friday, June 28, 2013

Heart or head?

For some reason I've been reflecting on the idea of believing something 'in your heart' compared to believing it 'in your head'. What happens when heart and head don't agree on what they believe? Can your heart-belief cause your head-belief to shift, and vice versa?

Fundamentally, and this is an issue I've been struggling with for several years now, what happens when you believe something passionately with your heart, yet become convinced that it can't be true in your head? What happens, as far as I can tell, is that the heart simply has to follow the head eventually.

Christianity makes emotional sense to me. So many things that are done in church seem to work on an emotional level. And not just on an emotional level, but on a practical level too. When the church gets it right, being part of that church is a real blessing, it provides real community, real emotional and practical support, real companionship, conviction in unity, a reason to be altruistic, for some a reason to keep living at all, it gives a real sense of the presence of God and an apparent pathway into transcendence which is almost impossible to convey to someone who has never experienced it.

Put simply, as I have said on this blog before, worship works. Church works. Corporate prayer works. All of this can be a great and life-enhancing experience. Put together, it is more than enough evidence to make the heart believe in the truth of Jesus and the claims of Christianity.

But. Is there a reality beyond the psychological experience? Christianity makes promises for what you can get in this life, and in the life to come. Indeed, Christianity promises a life to come. For a great many people in 'good' churches, Christianity delivers on its promise for this life. But, of course, what it can't do is demonstrate - at all - that it can deliver on its other promises. Good feelings now cannot imply anything about whether there is a post-mortem existence or reveal any aspects of that existence, good or bad. This disconnect is a problem for my head.

Meanwhile, my head has been looking at the evidence for the historical reliability of the claims in the bible. And the claims are simply not historically reliable. Indeed, the more I think about it, the more it seems to me that there is just as much of a disconnect between the historical claims of Christianity and contemporary experience as there is between contemporary experience and the promise of life to come.

To summarise, Christianity seems to work in practice in the present, but it is wrong about the past, and it cannot demonstrate that it knows anything about the future.

Inevitably, the shifting beliefs of my head have pulled my heart into a disconnect with its former emotional beliefs. I no longer feel the unity of church or feel the transcendence of worship. But to get that back would mean having to simply switch off all my critical reasoning and reject or forget what I believe to be true about reality.

If you've never been at this crossroads in your life, you really can't know what its like. Any comments from confirmed atheists about it being a clear and obvious choice are irrelevant. Because they don't know. I can totally understand the situation of that character in the original Matrix movie who chose to opt back into the Matrix system, because he wanted the taste of the food there, even though he knew it was false. I've taken the red pill, I've seen what the outside is like, yet the fiction of the inside is very appealing still. 

No conclusion to all this. Not yet... Even if the end is inevitable, there's still some wrestling to be done.


James F. McGrath said...

I thought I should mention that the New Testament language of believing in one's heart doesn't have the same connotations that that language does today. Paul seems to have sided with Aristotle in thinking that human cognition occurs in the heart rather than the head, as we now know it does. And so he refers to not merely emotional but also rational activities as occurring "in the heart."

Ricky Carvel said...

Yeh, thanks for that. But I was more thinking about contemporary usage than about the biblical phrase. Basically contrasting those things you 'believe' because they 'feel right' with those things you 'believe' because you have rationally considered the evidence.

Anonymous said...

I get you with this, I've gone through a similar experience. What it came down to for me is believing that the teachings of Jesus when listened to and engaged with regularly through church (although critically) are something that makes me a better friend, husband, brother and child. As a result of similar searching for "truth" I've come to the conclusion that neither I nor anyone will know the truth of what Jesus actually said, did or was and it's ultimately just a faith position. I choose to believe that his teachings were important and self-sacrifice genuine and, liturgically and metaphorically if not always literally, I choose to call him The Son of God and part of the Trinity. Ultimately getting these things sorted in my head doesn't actually really help anyone (including myself it has seemed). Finally I think the church has a great potential for good but often gets lost along the way and if I simply opt-out of it then I also opt-out of any chance of influencing it and those in it for the better.

Hopefully this rambling make some sense!

Coralie said...

I have a slightly more heart-centric question for you, and forgive me if you've already written about this as I've only read this post. Do you feel you have a relationship with Jesus Christ like you would have a relationship with a friend sitting beside you?

Ricky Carvel said...


The most honest answer to your question is that I did used to feel like that, but that I don't feel like that anymore.

Being part of a Church culture that tells you that (if you have done A, B & C, then) you have a personal relationship with Christ, inevitably leads you to interpret everything you feel or anything that happens in that context. But the problem with that is that feelings can never give a wholly accurate picture of reality. You can feel things that aren't there, simply by believing them.

It came as quite a surprise to me when I discovered that the whole notion of having a 'personal relationship' with Jesus is a modern invention - it doesn't feature in the bible and wasn't talked about through about the first 1800 years of Christianity. It is a modern invention because modern people relate more to friends than to authority structures. Through most of history Christians bowed humbly before their God, without daring to believe that he would interact with them on a personal level, beyond certain basic commands. But we've moved from that in that we now claim that Christ walks with all of us and shares in our everyday experiences.

Vain Saints said...

"Personal Relationship w/God" has always been wishy-washy quasi-therapeutic Newspeak.

Throughout your blog, you drastically overstate the factual improbability of Christian claims. They are, in fact, at least as probable as any viable alternatives.

Rachel Suzanne said...

I'm going through the same kind of feelings right now. I'm in my late 20's and I announced my lack of belief to my family when I was 13, but now my dad has remarried and instead of having just 1 sibling, I have 7. I love being with them and being a part of such a big family, but they and their parents are Protestants, very active Protestants, and I'm frequently pressured to convert and forced to defend my position. The big problem I have is that heart issue; sometimes it's so appealing to imagine being a part of such a great big church family, with all that support and love, but my head just won't do it. I just can't get past how illogical it feels to my mind to believe in the Bible. It just seems so illogical to believe a book that has that history, that was written by the hands of men, that encourages war and hatred and slavery and sexism... My mind is pretty solidly atheist, my heart longs for spirituality